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`SECRET' OF A FINE SCHOOL: FACULTY, KIDS, PARENTS ALL CARE.

Byline: Richard Nemec

FEW people who drive by the gritty, inner-urban corner of Pico Boulevard and Arlington Avenue a few miles southwest of downtown could understand that this location once held tremendous promise for teetering public schools in Los Angeles. For those of us who do remember, it may provide a tiny seed from which renewed hope about our public schools could grow. Maybe.

It was a long time ago that I was familiar with this busy intersection - before the current neighborhood school operated at the southeast corner. Before local hoodlums carried and fired weapons indiscriminately. And before L.A. schools slid into their current quagmire of lackluster test scores and too-high dropout rates.

This was the site of the Los Angeles Unified School District's first - and in my opinion best - magnet school, the Center for Enriched Studies or CES. I remember the first year that CES operated at this site after a couple of initial years in temporary space at Hamilton High School, further to the west on the edge of Cheviot Hills. My son, a fifth-grader at the time in our local elementary school in Mar Vista, was among the pioneering youngsters - in fourth through eighth grades - who voluntarily boarded buses each morning to ride east eight to 10 miles.

The campus, which consisted of a series of LAUSD bungalows on a corner of some larger property that the school district had purchased from a Catholic order of nuns, was barely ready for bulldozers, let alone students. It included a multipurpose building, complete with a stage, and an outdoor swimming pool, neither of which could be used because they were in serious disrepair.

I have to admit to harboring some initial doubts about what my son was getting ``us'' into since it was his idea to make the change. My son had played soccer the previous fall with a year-older boy from our neighborhood who already was attending CES and encouraging others to do so.

All that my wife and I knew was that the student body was integrated, the curriculum was challenging, the teachers were dedicated, and a lot of learning supposedly was taking place there. My son seemed to love it from the very beginning. During the back-to-school night for parents, the principal - a dedicated man named Dave Peha, who has since retired - and the youngish faculty were so enthusiastic that it was hard for parents of the late 1970s not to become involved.

The physical plant, however, was a disaster that it took several years to rectify.

A few blacktop basketball courts and volleyball areas were carved out for meager recreation programs, but for the most part the early CES was a collection of temporary classroom bungalows obscured by lots of dust and smog. Students shared the outdoors with construction equipment that was part of the school district's efforts to improve the place.

Some of my son's newest basketball moves were learned on the asphalt courts at CES as he played with kids who were older, bigger and more street-wise than my 10-year-old son would ever be. He learned some new words that I am afraid weren't found in a standard dictionary.

Classes - even for the youngest fourth-graders - were arranged in a series of six separate periods, along the lines of a junior or senior high school class schedule. Students constantly crisscrossed the tiny campus among bungalows. In each classroom, whether for laboratory science, English or a broadcast journalism course, teachers were decidedly enthusiastic.

During the back-to-school nights for parents in the fall and the spring, the cars would come by the dozens and hundreds, parking in the vacant unpaved grounds that were being prepared for more permanent ``temporary'' classrooms and eventually some recreational space. Driving up to the place from its back entrance on a dark October night, we saw it looking very dusty and forlorn.

There were what appeared to be many two-parent families at these parent-teacher nights, and siblings came, too. In each class there would be more questions from parents than there was time to answer. In more recent years, there have been specially funded efforts at LAUSD schools to create and encourage parent involvement. At CES in the late '70s, it just happened naturally - as an extension of the commitment students made to uproot themselves from their neighborhood schools in search of something better.

Now privately financed school foundations are popular for supplementing the paltry district budget at neighborhood public schools. Back then, CES already had a foundation, and parents - including my wife and me - willingly donated.

I am not sure if, even in those comparatively innocent times, CES was ever the equal of one of the major private schools in the city, but it had the same spark that my kids later found in private high schools and colleges as they progressed through the education channels.

In later years - when the campus was much bigger, the student body twice the size and grades ran from fourth through high school - my daughter also attended CES, not fully appreciating what her pioneering brother had endured his first year. The original principal had moved on to begin another magnet school for the LAUSD, and the faculty was growing.

Many friends of my son and daughter ended up attending CES for at least two or three years of their education before high school. To varying degrees, they all have done very well as young adults whose numbers include lawyers, teachers, business professionals, counselors and engineers.

The magnet school continued for a number of years at the Pico Boulevard location, long after my children were in college. More recently, I think, CES was moved back to its Westside roots. The fully developed Pico-Arlington campus was turned into a neighborhood school, Pio Pico Elementary. Next to it sits the once refurbished multipurpose buildings, now abandoned, and the pool, padlocked and covered with graffiti.

I look back to those early days searching for some profound combination of factors that made the old CES what it was. But in reality, I don't think it was all that complicated.

The magic formula was simply that people cared: the principal, teachers, students and parents. All of them. And it worked.
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Title Annotation:VIEWPOINT
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Dec 14, 1997
Words:1031
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